Composition, part 5.1

Part five-point-one? Aren’t we up to fourteen now? Well, yes, but part five needed revisiting. Okay, it didn’t need it, and to be frank, it’s probably one of those things that will be debated for a long time – but here’s my attempt to reduce this as much as I might by introducing a pertinent factor. As you no doubt recall, Composition Part 5 was about the Rule of Thirds; 5.1 is going to be about applying some critical thinking to it.

The basic premise of the (non)Rule of Thirds: Split your intended photo, what you see in the viewfinder before you actually take the photo, into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, superimposing a tic-tac-toe board across the frame. Your main focal point, the most eye-catching part of the image (which often is the eyes of the subject) should fall on one of the lines or, preferably, right on the intersection of two of them, one-third in from either side. This is much better than centering your subject, which people have a tendency to do. I redefined it differently in my earlier post, keeping the rough gist but denying the mathematics of it.

I was recently led to a post from several years ago where another photographer laid out the close relationship with the Fibonacci Sequence, and there he overlaid the mathematical spiral onto several of his existing images. Some of them appear to fit amazingly well, and others… not so much.

Now, no insult intended towards Jake Garn, but the Rule of Thirds and the whole idea of both Fibonacci and Phi is more likely what we consider, in critical-thinking circles, confirmation bias. Photography and critical thinking? Of course I had to post about this! Confirmation bias is the process of producing a hypothesis of any kind, then finding evidence that supports it, but only evidence that supports it. Counting the ‘hits’ and not the ‘misses,’ in other words. It can be seen all over the place, from global warming denial to folk remedies (my grandmother swears by these.) And the concept of Phi as a natural ratio originates way back in the halcyon days of ancient Greece, where people were philosophers before philosophy was cool – don’t you love the idea of a hipster in a toga? They still weren’t silly enough to drink soy mochafrappies, however. One of the concepts that got its start then was that everything could be explained mathematically, and in fact mathematics ruled physics. Don’t take this to mean that mathematics is necessary to comprehend physics, which it is; what I mean is that math was physics, and perfect ratios and geometry were what the universe was all about. You’d think that Pi, with its neverending decimal extension, would have broken them of the idea, but that’s the nature of confirmation bias: such things are ignored.

Anyway, in their quest to understand why we might prefer asymmetrical compositions (and architecture and so on) over perfectly symmetrical, equal all sides from the middle, they arrived at the Golden Ratio [angels sing briefly], explained and illustrated here. This is all well and good, and interestingly, close similarities to it can be found many places in nature, but mathematics and nature maintain a distant neighborly acquaintance at best. Anyone can take a large number of images that people find compositionally strong, lay out grids across the photos, measure the key elements, and produce a set of numbers that will have an average. However, this average is not a magical number that will tell you a “perfect” photo, just like any average will not be the quintessence of anything. While we could probably see some distinct tendencies, which might help a little in deciding how to compose an image, there is a marked difference between tendency and rule.

This image completely wrecks the idea of thirds or Phi, but includes the whole spread of the arms and recognizes the faint tendency for them to point to the right, implying water flowing in that direction, so space is given on that side to let them waft freely.

If mathematics were what we responded to in images, then if we found images that departed from the Golden Ratio or Rule of Thirds by, say, ten percent, they would be ten percent less likely to be popular, right? Someone would almost always choose an image that hewed exactly to the numbers over an image that was slightly off, right? But the mistake goes back to that original mistake centuries ago, in thinking that mathematics is magical rather than just a way of comparing one thing to another. Photos are largely emotional, instinctual, and subconscious; the reaction people have to them is because of the associations with the elements therein. As I said before, using an off-center subject places it within a setting or scene – but that setting has to be reasonably complete for it to be strong. If we put the main person right smack in the ‘proper’ location in the frame, but cut off a tree or other person with the frame’s edge, it will probably be much weaker than if we place the frame’s edge in a natural break between elements, even if it means moving the main person away from the optimum location. What we’re seeing is not ratios at all, but discrete ideas – the tree, house, the curve of the street or river, and so on. Include enough of these to provide the right idea to the viewer, use the frame’s space wisely, and don’t try to get all scientific about it. Much as we might like hard and fast rules so we don’t have to make a decision every damn time, they won’t work.

What the Rule of Thirds does, I suspect, is to get people away from focusing solely on the subject and start them thinking about the scene, setting, surroundings, and some other S-word to round out the alliteration. We have a wicked tendency to see only a small facet of our surroundings when we choose to, paying attention solely to one person or subject, and too often take photos that reflect that. But a stronger image typically (not always) gives us some context – context that the person holding the camera knows was there subconsciously, but the viewer will not get unless we include it within the image. This would make the Rule of Thirds (Fibonacci, Phi) a really crappy way of communicating this.

This is the first time I've cropped this image into a vertical, precisely for this post. While the moon might be close to the point that the Rule of Thirds would indicate, the cropping is more to accommodate the one branch of the tree seeking the corner, and not cutting off the higher contrast spot of moss in the upper right. That's how to use the frame.

To me at least, an even stronger compositional “rule” is to use the frame wisely. I’m very fond of working the corners, which can even be seen in the B&W tidal pool image that I used in the previous post on thirds – the edges of the water stay within the top and bottom of the frame, making the pool an important aspect of the whole image. If I’d gone in closer and cut those edges off, the viewer is forced to believe that these were less important than the reflection in the water, which is about the only other thing that captures attention. Yet that’s certainly not strong enough by itself, and really is only a point of contrast which helps make the scene more dynamic. For the image at right, the original is much more centered, so even though the branches lean a bit to the left, the mosses on the right side help maintain the balance. But when cropping it to vertical (I can’t believe I never thought to try this before,) the balance is taken away and the emphasis of the branches leaning left is heightened, so the framing now reflects that.

And if you were on your toes, you noticed that the ‘flow’ to the sides of both of these images brings you into the text, not away from it – that’s another little trick that I actually use quite often, as do editors. It’s subtle, but it implies the importance of the text. Not that it needs it, of course.

So while there’s some compositional aspects that bear consideration, there’s also the underlying lesson that approaching things from the wrong angle can be misleading and counterproductive. Photography often benefits from the specific avoidance of structure, rather than the application of it. Most especially, it is not scientific or mathematical, but emotional and associative instead. Trying to reduce it to rules is more of a square-peg-round-hole situation. This applies to many other aspects of life, too, where we desire some reliable guidelines or shortcuts in a process and instead produce something that’s inaccurate as often as it is useful (and the only way to tell is to have some other standard of determining usefulness, which we should have stayed with in the first place.) There’s even a quick lesson in logic, where you might be able to take a lot of examples and create an average, but using the average as a goal is misunderstanding what an average is. Sometimes we need the extremes, the variety, and the rare appearances.

Even thinking that math can explain some constants, or some particular aspect of the universe, is generally playing both sides of the fence. Math is exact; being off by a few percent means that we’re no longer dealing with Phi, or any other mathematical expression. So we really can’t resort to a specific ratio and then say, “somewhere around there, anyway” – either it is or it isn’t. And considering the sheer number of instances where it cannot be applied without significant fudging, but people like the images (or architecture or design or whatever) anyway – especially those cases where applying it actually makes things less appealing – the only rational conclusion is that the concept is corrupt in its very nature. There’s little point in settling for something imprecise because it’s better than nothing, when we can attempt to understand what really is at work and gain so much more from it.

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